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Local officials lobby Congress to re-authorize annual subsidies

| September 27, 2006 12:00 AM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

Local officials who participated in a recent lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., are optimistic that Congress heard their message of the importance of re-authorizing a program that since 2000 has provided more than $2 billion to counties and school districts containing national forest lands.

At stake is the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, which was enacted with a six-year lifespan. The act was passed in reaction to declining timber revenues and provides millions of dollars in annual subsidies to counties that were formerly dependent on logging and other income-generating activities on national forests.

Previously, counties had received a 25-percent share of forest receipts for roads and schools. The 2000 law set annual payments at an average of the three highest years of the previous decade. For Lincoln County, that amounted to more than $5.8 million per year, with 15 percent taken off the top for special forest-related projects mandated by the new law and the remainder divided under a Montana statute allocating two-thirds to roads and one-third to schools.

For Lincoln County, the loss of that revenue would result in the exhaustion of the $23 million road fund in five to seven years. A road tax would have to be put into place, and taxes would also have to be raised for the general fund to offset the loss of interest earnings on the road fund, said Commissioner Rita Windom. While the majority of the schools' share of the annual payments goes to the state's equalization fund, local districts would lose $500,000 per year for their transportation and retirement funds. That loss would also have to be offset by local levies.

Windom, along with fellow commissioners Marianne Roose and John Konzen, took part in a Sept. 12-14 lobbying effort organized by the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition and aimed at convincing Congress to renew the law. Also participating in the effort were Troy School District superintendent Brady Selle and Robyn King, executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council. More than 200 county and school officials from 23 states were involved.

"We hit all 535 members of Congress," Windom said.

Windom's group met with members of Congress from Montana, Alaska and Connecticut. Roose and Konzen were in a group that visited Florida's congressional offices. While in Washington, Roose, Konzen and King also met with Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth and Region 1 head Gail Kimball to discuss forest planning issues.

Roose said the trip was well worth the effort because of the personal contacts that were made.

"I think it was very successful, and all of the offices we visited were very responsive, and most of them had a great understanding of what we were talking about," she said.

"It was pretty well accepted" that Congress would agree to a one-year extension of the law while it looks for funding sources for a longer-term solution, Windom said. The extension will likely be part of an omnibus appropriations bill in November, she said.

Administration officials have been talking about a "glide slope" that would start with full funding for the act and decrease to nothing over a period of time, Windom said.

"And we don't feel that's an appropriate approach," she said.

Federal officials have already discussed and discarded a proposal to fund the payments through the sale of federal lands, Windom noted.

Windom said she would like to see timber harvests used as a portion of the funding solution.

"If we could get past the lawsuits, we could use 25-percent funds off of logging to supplement that," she said.